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Column: Six children are dead. Could these needless deaths have been prevented?

Luiz Fuentes

Luiz Fuentes, who is accused of killing his three sons in a car in South Los Angeles, appears in court Sept. 16. He’s on suicide watch in L.A. County Jail.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

A woman accused of stabbing her three young daughters is on trial in Compton on murder charges.

Carol Coronado’s husband testified that she’d been “acting weird” before allegedly killing the girls and then stabbing herself May 20, 2014, in the bedroom of their West Carson home.

In the hours leading up to that, she had called her mother and begged for help. When the grandmother arrived, she found the girls — ages 2 months, 16 months and 2 1/2 years — lined up on the bed. Coronado was naked and bleeding.

A man now charged with killing his three young sons has been on suicide watch in Los Angeles County Jail.

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Luiz Fuentes

A family photo of Luiz Fuentes, center, with sons Luis, Alexander and Juan. Fuentes’ wife died seven years ago. He’d been depressed and struggling to raise the children since.

The boys — ages 10, 9 and 8 — were found stabbed to death in September in the back seat of the family car. Luis Fuentes was in the front seat, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds.

Fuentes’ wife died seven years ago. He’d been depressed and struggling to raise the children since. He worked long hours. Their home life was chaotic, their finances were strained. When the boys died, the family was homeless.

Emotional turmoil doesn’t excuse these attacks — six innocents were brutally killed. But I can’t help but look beyond the horror and wonder:

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How might those children have fared if their parents had gotten the help they needed?

::

Twenty years ago, I was a single parent, battling grief and struggling to raise three children alone.

I had every advantage — a job, a home, support from family, friends and co-workers — and still there were days I was so overwhelmed that I’d lock myself in the bathroom and sob. Nights I’d crawl into bed so discouraged and exhausted, I thought it might be a relief to never wake up.

Giving up wasn’t an option. But I often felt afraid, inadequate, overwhelmed, ashamed. Worried that I wasn’t up to the task of parenting.

Slain children

The three daughters of Carol Coronado were shot to death May 21. Coronado is on trial in the slayings. Xenia, top, was 2 months old; Sophia, bottom right, was 2 1/2; and Yazmine, bottom left, was 16 months.

It’s hard to tell what was going on when Coronado snapped; no one doubts she killed her daughters.

The prosecutor in her case blames marital discord and messy toddlers. Her husband says “a demon” led her to slit their throats. Her lawyer suspects postpartum depression and thinks Coronado belongs in a mental hospital, not behind bars.

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The trial is on hold this week so a doctor can evaluate Coronado’s mental state after she appeared to have a breakdown Friday and had to be dragged from the courtroom.

A diagnosis might save her from prison, but it won’t bring her daughters back.

And it won’t ease the grief of family members and friends who wrote off her volatility to the rigors of caring for three babies in three years.

::

If Coronado was on nobody’s radar, Fuentes was on everyone’s.

Calls accusing him of abuse had come in to the Los Angeles County child welfare hotline five years ago. His girlfriend told social workers he was “anxious, nervous and depressed” and urgently needed therapy. He was ordered by the court to attend grief counseling, but didn’t like talking about his wife’s death so quit after the first session.

Ultimately, the child welfare agency closed its books on the family — and Fuentes continue to unravel.

He earned too little at his factory job to afford an apartment but too much for government help. A friend offered the family a place to stay, but he was too proud to accept. Relatives invited him on outings, but he refused to attend.

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There are community-based services he could have tapped, but they’re fragmented and hard to navigate without professional help, said USC child welfare professor Jacquelyn McCroskey.

“It’s overwhelming,” McCroskey said. “It’s not just the trauma and the crisis he’s been through. It’s trying to figure out how to trust somebody who’s going to be able to help you.”

Slain children

Relatives comfort a grieving Rudy Coronado, second from left, the father of three slain girls.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Fuentes needed a safe space to grieve the death of his wife. His boys needed support to deal with the loss of their mother. The family needed help with finances, child care, housing, parenting.

Instead Fuentes got interrogations, court orders and official rebukes from child welfare officials who intended to help, then failed to follow through.

“You don’t want people to pity you,” McCroskey said. “You want someone to say: ‘Here’s where you start. I’ll walk you through this.’ But we don’t have a system that does that.... If you don’t get the help you need at first, it’s hard to get on track.”

What Fuentes needed was more than he knew to ask for — and more than the county’s patchwork of social services could readily provide.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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